Sunday, December 28, 2008

planning the novel v. letting the muses run

I'm not sure I can say how much I let the muse run the story and how much detail I plot out ahead of time. I mean, seriously, if I just let my muse run, I would have some lovely ramblings, but the plot would be hopelessly lost. So I have to have a bit of a plan, at the very least.

Since this is my first book, I've been stumbling along a lot, but I did start with narrative outline--that's a narrative written in present tense that walks through the basics of the storyline. "Anna sees Tip and hates his guts... He flees from the ceanothus around the pine tree..." That sort of thing. BTW, I can guarantee you neither of those phrases exists in my book.

I have changed things a lot, giving a great deal of credit to what has to be the best writers critique group ever. Because of those changes in the plot, or in characters, the old narrative is pretty much gone, but some of the landmarks still provide a bit of a guide for me--like shadows in the fog.

I know that certain things have to happen at specific times, that I need to show my characters personalities through dialog and action that also moves the story forward, and I need to balance the "exposure" the reader gets to each character so that the more important characters get more page space than the lesser ones. Periodically I stop and evaluate these sort of things. Is it time to bring the hero back in? Is it time to reveal more about her father and the rift there? Is it time to put in another excerpt from the book that Anna, my main character,  is writing? ( I do that here and there. I use it as foreshadowing or sometimes just as a parallel to what is going on in Anna's "real" life.)  So I have sort of a story within a story. The excerpts are also often comic relief. Anna's fictional heroine is Cody, who is a six-foot bombshell lawyer who sometimes talks like she came out of a Dashiell Hammett book. She's not very nice, and is a lot of fun to write. Anna is, as one of my critique group says, "creative, repressed, tormented, and in trouble." I like her too much to call her neurotic, but...there's a lot of contrast between Anna and Cody, the bold character she's created for her books.

Steven King calls his writing "uncovering the bones"--gradually revealing your story as archaeologists do when they sweep away the debris at a site. That suggests his writing just unfolds. I don't believe he uses an outline as such, but I'm sure all writers need to know basically what direction they're going as they write. But what has been working for me is to let the story unfold from what ideas I have in my head, and if some other direction occurs to me in mid-scene, I may investigate it, write it out, toss it later, or refine it. So far, I've tossed out a couple of characters to allow more of the father/daughter thing, for example. But I do know pretty much the highlights of my story--what's coming up to cause some more tension, what's going to be an obstacle to a relationship, what's going to strengthen it in the long run.  But a lot of the details pop up as I go.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

waiting for the muse

I worked a bit on my files today--labeling things with a Sharpee so that now you can be asphyxiated  looking for things in the file drawer. Whew!

The book is on simmer--that's what I call it when I'm mulling over a bunch of stuff, trying to figure out how to write a certain section, or determine what needs to be revealed next. A whole bunch of ideas just bubble away until, all at once, something pops to the top that clarifies my direction.  

To change the metaphor:  writing is a lot like walking into doors. Some are open when you come down the hall, some open just as you get there, and some  you aren't sure are closed until you smack into them. Ouch! Not that one right now.  Of course, some are also hidden doors that only open when you accidentally hit the secret button. And secret buttons are usually found only in the process of keeping the butt in the chair and producing verbiage. Then, somewhere in the midst of writing a paragraph, the whole next scene opens up for you. But those doors are rare.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

you're asking ME?

A friend just emailed me for advice about an article she's doing for an e-zine. She's an artist, and the comments she puts under the reproductions in her portfolio are profound and touching. Yes, I'm an experienced journalist, so I gave her some basic advice and offered to check her work when she's ready to send it off, but sheesh...

This woman has so much heart and maturity, so much insight, peace and presence in the moment that I can't imagine that her piece won't be absolutely poetic and inspiring. 

Some people are able to open up their hearts to the world in an  extraordinary way, and to put that into words that are simple, deep, and moving.  I find that quite often they are NOT writers, at least they wouldn't label themselves that, and they've perhaps never written anything for publication. But their words lift us up, open an experience to us, delight us, make us think and feel. I think the more we can drop our defenses, the better our writing is--the more we expose our nerve endings, the more real our fictional characters can be, and the deeper the experience for our readers. 

Thursday, December 18, 2008

the more I struggle...

Writing is such a balance of discipline and inspiration. I need energy to write--emotional and physical energy, and I need to harness it with b.i.c. (butt in chair) time. I can't squeeze out those words, but I can sit down and write something, and write something more, then something more. Then I edit and come up with about two-thirds of what I started with that's worth keeping. I can't MAKE the book come out, but I can encourage it out, coax it out. When words start flowing onto the page, eventually, the dam breaks and the real stuff comes--like priming an old-fashioned water pump--anybody remember those?  Of course, then that is followed by editing, re-writing, and re-writing some more. One writer once said, "It's easy to write a book. All you do is sit in the chair and open a vein."

Monday, December 15, 2008

Christmas "interruptions"?

Yes, I'm supposed to be diligently working on my book, but some things really are more important. Today, I'm trying to get the CHRISTmas cards out--haven't sent any for a few years and feel deep, crippling guilt. Well, maybe not, but I do need to get them out. The project reminds me to take time to thank God for all the friends and family we have scattered around the world (mostly England if outside the US), and the richness they bring to our lives. Although I don't base any of my characters solely on any person, I do draw from the wonderful humor, wit, and joy these special folks bring to my life. Even the messy ones bring texture to the mix and challenge me to be kinder, more patient, and to choose to look for good.

Today I'm tackling a particularly tough scene in my book and I will draw on my love for the difficult people in my life as I do it. Someone once said that writers have no original ideas, that we are, at heart, thieves from the world around us. May we steal only the best and pass along what gives a little insight and entertainment.

Friday, December 12, 2008

since you asked

I suppose it would be nice to give blog readers an idea what my book is about.  Anna is a 30-ish journalism professor who has always been the dutiful daughter of her academician father. He's the dean of the J-school where she works, and he disdains fiction. She has moonlighted with a few mystery novels and has been very successful under the name Claire Donaldson, which she doesn't want Daddy to know about. Now, Claire is becoming famous, some people are beginning to wonder who she really is, Anna's stepmother wants to interview a celebrity for a feature article (and of course, chooses Claire), a new landscaper is in town and may not be who he appears to be... Well, you get the gist of it.

I always liked the old romantic comedies, so that was my model as I started. Now, the book is becoming an exploration of why we get stuck doing things we really don't care about, about our identities--do we choose who we are, are we formed by those around us, is identity thrust upon us by divine design? How do we find and nurture our individual identity? Anna has a few sidekicks in her adventure: an older sister who seems to have always known who she is, a best friend who is willing to go to the mat for Anna while being beset with twin toddlers and an infant in tow, a mother who understands what taking a stand against Daddy really means...  And I hope the thing is funny, as well as thought provoking. My writers critique group laughs. 

I hope a publisher friend of mine is right: she says any writer who can sum up a book in three sentences is probably a better marketer than writer.  At least I don't seem to be a very good marketer--and I hope that bodes well for the writing in the book!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

now I'm stuck

Every once in a while I reach a spot like today where the story hangs up. I need to think about how to increase the complications while weaving in a couple more complications. I've got to get back to my hero who, while not saving the day, will certainly add some solutions along with his complications. And what about the heroine's relationship with her father? More on that is needed.

You see, we have all these elements hanging around our novels. We need to weave them throughout, some more strongly than others, and they have to lead somewhere to justify their existence in the story. My hero, the main character's father,  and the father's second wife, are all antagonists to some degree. They have to be likeable, though, because they are part of the main character's daily life. In the long run, there is no villain like the one that lies within your own heart, so Anna, my heroine, has to face those things in her life that led her to where she is and keep her from getting to where she wants to go.  Ohh, this just made me think of a good place to pick up my current scene. Later...

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

stop diddling and write

Well, setting up the blog, I finally figured out how to get a photo in, but I couldn't crop. I'm techno-challenged, but I don't want to bug my husband for help, or Stephanie, who helped me set it all up. I'll have to have another photo taken by my 11-year-old, who isn't really getting the zoom stuff straight. 

I am about to stop fussing with this and get back to my manuscript. We were out all day and my behind has only been in the chair long enough to check email. I need to finish at least other scene or two to make me feel like I'm productive. The book calls, the main character is nagging me, and a couple of the sidekicks want more page time. Maybe doing this blog will make me work on the book more so I have something to report, some thought process upon which to ruminate. Does the book already exist, rattling around my brain? I think it does.

the"butt in the chair" commitment

As a recovering journalist, I face fiction with some trepidation, but I find my time spent in radio news and copywriting has helped give me an ear for dialog, and, as Elizabeth George has said, "Character is story. Dialogue is character." And so I continue to plug away, unglamorously, word by word.

This fall I read through the whole manuscript and deleted half of it--everything from one of the character's points of view. How hard it was to toss those pages--and how freeing to fix something wrong with your story and have it move so much more fluidly.